Even if one did not know who Anton Chekhov was or had never seen nor read The Cherry Orchard, he or she would find much to appreciate in Duncan McIntosh’s The Shore Field, which McIntosh based on Chekhov’s play. What will make it endearing to PEI audiences is that McIntosh’s play is set in PEI, just outside North Rustico in 1973.
The story revolves around a famous actress Alfie Rainey, who returns with her daughter to her family home in PEI one summer. Her homecoming, however, albeit rife with nostalgia, is not a very happy one, as she learns that the property is in arrears and that she needs to make a decision to either subdivide and sell or lose everything on the auction block.
While waiting for her to make a decision, two potential romances crop up—one between her housekeeper Donna, played by Laurie Campbell, and their former farmhand-turned-successful businessman Larry, played by Jody Racicot; the other between her daughter Anna, played by Rebecca Parent, and her dead son’s former tutor Joey, played by Jonathan Widdifield.
Alfie’s role is masterfully portrayed by Gracie Finley, a former long-running star in the Charlottetown festival musical Anne of Green Gables, who returns to the PEI stage after a long absence. Alfie shares several nostalgic memories with her brother Augustus “Gus” McNeil, played by itinerant Toronto-based actor Jonathan Whittacker, who has perfectly portrayed the typical Islander male’s amusing and endearing, if not bordering on the annoying, penchant for long-windedness. Rounding off the cast is Teresa Costello as the family’s long-time nanny who still takes caring for Alfie and Gus as her main purpose in life.
Even if it is based on Chekhov’s play, The Shore Field reveals much of Islanders’ sentimentality and attachment to the Island and how difficult and painful it is to say goodbye to the past, to old possessions, old lifestyles, even people who were always in their lives. Like Chekhov’s play, The Shore Field explores deeper issues such as the breakdown of social structures, the shifting economy, and the reasons for the diaspora from rural PEI to other provinces. It shows the fall of the landed gentry and the rise of the lower class to mold a more uniform class structure that meets somewhere in between. All the old things, the things and people of the past who cannot change are left behind.
Duncan McIntosh has created an extremely thought-provoking play that replicates a vital cross-section of PEI society in the 70s that could still very well be the exact same society in PEI today. Although most of the characters were not particularly dynamic and maintained pretty much the same outlook from beginning to end so that they were very much stereotypes, the strong performances of each member of the cast served the script well.
Because of the nature of the thrust stage and layout of the seats in the Watermark Theatre, formerly the L.M. Montgomery Theatre, blocking and set design were quite a challenge. I feel that the audience would have benefited more if the main characters faced outward towards the audience more often than they faced inward during the first scene. That way, everyone in the audience would be able to appreciate the expressiveness of the actors rather than watch their backs. I might have reversed the staircase so that the characters could all face the audience more, or modified the blocking so that it was the minor characters that had their backs to the audience.
That said, this is nonetheless a mini-masterpiece of PEI theatre that is something every islander must definitely see this summer.
**This post is also available on ONRPEI.ca